Feb 14, 2009 6:11pm
Re: Frank Zappa and Improvisation
The fact that there was not very much improv is not an opinion, it is a recorded fact. Read "No Commercial Potential" sometime, Zappa' biography, or any number of interviews. The structure and precision of the music is mentioned far more often than any aspect of improvisation or jamming.
Again, That's the beauty of Zappa's music, it sounds off the cuff and jammed, but it ain't. This was not necessarily Jazz ("Jazz is not dead, it just smells bad" FZ, Roxy & Elsewhere), he considered his music closer to classical. Two people he cited as big influences were Stravinski and Egdar Varese, a couple of classical composers who were known for complicated, intricate and unusual compositions.
Just because something sounds wierd and improvised does not make it so. It doesn't mean that it wasn't composed and written down that way. Waka Jawaka is a wonderful Zappa composition, there is absolutely no improvisation in that album. It's an amazing piece of work that was composed and conducted by him. He says in one segment below that some of his musicians couldn't read music, so I assume they would have to learn it by heart. You can see that he regarded his musicians as employees and demanded the same discipline as you would an orchestra.
Here are a couple of interview segments, as a matter of fact GRAND WAZOO is specifically reffered to in the last segment (GRAND WAZOO and WAKA JAWAKA, which featured many of the songs you mentioned, were released about 4 months apart in '72 and featured pretty much the same lineup).
JON WINOKUR - One of the things that I appreciate about your music is its precision. Are you a taskmaster?
FRANK ZAPPA - Well, I'm not murder on them, but I don't let them mess around. Just because it's a rock 'n' roll band is no reason you shouldn't have the same discipline and precision that you ask for in an orchestra- after all, you're handing a guy a paycheck.
from RockBill, Nov. 1984
Q: Do you score all of your music?
FZ: It's either written down on a piece of paper or I know what I'm doing before I start spending money in the studio. No jam session.
Guitar World 4/87
Q: Do you see a conceptual continuum between, say, "Call Any Vegetable" and Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar? Or between the Mothers 0f Invention and the Mothers of Prevention?
FZ: There are some links, yeah. The main drawback of the medium I'm working in is, until I got the computer I was locked into making music based on the assets and/or liabilities of the guys in the band. In other words, if you want to write something that's faster than what the guys can play, you can't hear it, because they can't play it that fast. Or if you want something for an instrumentation that you don't have in the band, then you won't hear it. But now that I can do it with a computer, that's not a problem anymore.
Q: Was it always that way? When you were writing parts for, say Roy Estrada, or anybody in the early days for instance, it was all charted out, and-
FZ: N0--because, the only time I ever had a band where everybody could read [music] was the band that had Jean-Luc Ponty and Ralph Humphrey, and Ian and Ruth [Underwood] and George [Duke], that was a reading band. And Grand Wazoo, that was a reading band. All the rest of 'em were like half-and-half. Half the guys could read, half of 'em couldn't.
In some of his later interviews he talks about how he likes working with computers because he has complete control and doesn't have to deal with the human element.
Once again, there are some mentions of improvisation, however it is obvious from reading interviews with Zappa that his focus was on discipline and precision rather than jamming.
I found these articles and many other Zappa interviews at a nice site: http://home.online.no/~corneliu/interviews.htm
There is an interview with Gary Barone who played trumpet for Zappa in '72 in a band called "Petit Wazoo", a smaller version of the Waka/Wazoo bands, and he does mention that while much of the compositions, i.e. the GRAND WAZOO songs that they played live were played strictly as composed, a second group were loosely composed and subject to some evolution and there were some primarily blues and "groove" jams that were pretty much some form of improvisation, although he seems to suggest that there may not have been extensive improvisation.
Q: Your repertoire consisted mostly of brand new material that had never been played by a band before. In later Zappa ensembles, such songs would often evolve a lot during rehearsals, and change radically before they went on the road. Did this happen with the Petit Wazoo, or did Frank bring definitive, finalized versions of the songs?
GB: The repertoire consisted of three "sets" of songs: the first was the Grand Wazoo arrangements cut down for the smaller band--these were rehearsed and definitive versions. The second group of songs was rehearsed, but not set in stone--they evolved somewhat as we played them. The third group were "jams"--mostly entirely improvised (blues, grooves, etc.). I would have to hear the pieces again to say "how much" they were improvised.
This was probably one of the "jazziest" of Franks bands. He would come and play at the jam sessions in some of the cities on the tour. He seemed to get off playing with the "jazzers". He was amazing. Although he didn't come from the jazz idiom, he wanted to learn more--and sounded good doing it. I really respected him: his ability to put out so much music and so many ideas.
Zappa was an amazing artist, one of my favorite musicians ever, I love listening to his music and own at least 20 of his albums. However, I don't think you can include him in a jam band category, his music was too structured, albeit wierd.
This post was modified by Purple Gel on 2009-02-15 02:11:16